Revisiting ADHD with Dr. Russel Barkley: Attention Deficit Disorder or Executive Function Deficit Disorder?
By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | February 24, 2013
I’m not quite sure how any condition often labeled as a “cognitive deficit” disorder could be misconstrued as a gift, but out here on the “West Coasts”—Alaska and California—two places I’ve most recently lived, there are supposedly numerous risk takers and adventure seekers with this “gift” called Attention Deficit Disorder, that also presents as a mental health condition.
It is difficult to grasp how having the attention span of a fruit fly, provides an adaptive advantage for a human, but some suggest that people prone to distractibility are gifted with exceptional creativity and intuitiveness. The author Daniel Pink, in his review of The Gift of Adult ADD by Laura Honos-Webb, asserts that the ADHD mind may rapidly become in high demand.
I talk to one of the world’s foremost experts on ADHD (ADD), Dr. Russel Barkley, about this cognitive disorder, which if anything may be mislabeled to the detriment of so many who suffer from the impairment—many of whom would be hard-pressed to consider this deficit a gift at all.
Jordan: Could you provide a brief clinical definition of ADD as it presents in the adult population?
Dr. Barkley: ADHD is currently viewed as a developmental neuropsychiatric disorder that consists primarily of age-inappropriate degrees of inattention, impulsive, and/or hyperactive behavior that often develops in childhood or adolescence, is relatively persistent in most but not all cases, and results in impairment in major life activities. These symptoms are believed by many researchers to reflect a deficit in the development of self-regulation.
Jordan: Is there a biological basis for this disorder, which many clinicians still refuse to recognize?
Dr. Barkley: Yes. The evidence is overwhelming that ADHD is the result of neurological factors and that these problems with brain development and functioning can arise from differences in genes that construct and operate the brain, particularly the executive networks. But it is also possible for some ADHD to arise from neurological injuries especially during pre-natal and post-natal brain development, such as through exposure to toxins (like maternal smoking and alcohol use), exposure to prenatal infections, and to toxins such as lead after birth as well as head injury and other factors that can affect brain development. Genetic and environmental hazards can interact to increase the risk for the disorder as well. There is no evidence that purely social factors can produce the disorder.
Jordan: Does the impairment confer any special gift based on your clinical research or from work with your own patient population?
Dr. Barkley: No. Thousands of studies of people with ADHD have never documented that such people experienced any benefit, gifts, or other positive effects from having the disorder across more than a hundred measures of psychological traits.
Jordan: Are effective treatments out there for ADHD?
Dr. Barkley: Yes, ADHD is a highly treatable disorder but must be approached like diabetes – as a chronic condition that must be managed to prevent secondary harms from happening to the individual. The most effective treatments for adults at this time are ADHD medications followed by cognitive behavioral therapy focusing on training in executive functioning skills and how best to compensate for the self-regulatory deficits. Counseling about the nature of the disorder as well as obtaining educational and occupational accommodations can also be helpful. Coaching for ADHD in adults has some clinical support but has not yet been studied in rigorous research.
Jordan: It seems that there are a lot of comorbid psychiatric conditions found in the ADD adult population. Can you mention some of the more benign to more severe that are commonly found in these adults?
Dr. Barkley: ADHD is most commonly associated with oppositional defiant disorder, learning disorders, and conduct disorder. However, up to 25-35% may also experience substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and even personality disorders.
Jordan: How is ADD most commonly diagnosed?
Dr. Barkley: Typically by taking a careful history from the patient and others who know them well, reviewing archival records, such as schooling, using behavior rating scales completed by patients and significant others, and giving brief psychological tests to determine any intellectual or learning disabilities. The clinician than compares this evidence against the professional diagnostic criteria, such as in DSM-5, to see if the criteria for the disorder are met.
Jordan: If you could relabel the disorder what might you call it and why?
Dr. Barkley: Personally I think Disorder of Self-Regulation or Executive Function Deficit Disorder would be more accurate but that is not likely to happen given that the term ADHD appears in many entitlement programs, disability rights legislation, educational regulations, etc. and so one does not want to change the name and disenfranchise people from these various entitlements, protections, and accommodations.
Jordan: What does the future hold for ADD research. Is there hope for treatment? Is there concern as we learn more about the disorder and possible etiologies?
Dr. Barkley: Much. The fastest advances now are occurring in neuro-imaging of the disorder, molecular genetic studies of the genes that may contribute to it, and the development of potential new medications for its management.
Websites I recommend are:
Dr. Barkley: russellbarkley.org, ADHDLectures.com
CHADD Organization: chadd.org
ADDA Organization: add.org
Charles Schwab Foundation (for Learning Disorders): SchwabLearning.org
Council for Exceptional Education (CEC): cec.sped.org
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: aacap.org
American Academy of Pediatrics: aap.org
Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA): ldanatl.org
National Institute of Mental Health: help4adhd.org
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities: nichcy.org
ADD Warehouse: addwarehouse.com
Coaching Network: Contact Nancy Ratey. email: email@example.com
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MEET THE AUTHOR
Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine, and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife and conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (As executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.